I’m now into my sixth year of trying to raise mental health awareness by undertaking various “challenges”. The definitive list of 100 covering 2014-18 includes numerous tasks relating to sports and (performing) arts that tested me physically and/or emotionally, as well as many meeting and visiting challenges that required a significant amount of planning (and often travelling).
Throughout the whole time, the underlying messages remained the same. It is fine to talk openly about mental health; and never be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling.
As many of you will be aware, training and preparation notwithstanding, the majority of the tasks on the list were designed to require me to ask someone (often someone I didn’t know) for help in order to turn an idea into reality. It took me over a quarter of a century to accept I had a mental health problem, and to find the strength to go and see my GP (someone I hardly knew…) and ask for help.
The comparison might seem simplistic, but I make no apology because, for me, it is such a powerful link. Fifteen years after I booked that appointment and broke down completely in front of my doctor, so much has changed.
I would never say I have “recovered” – in fact I’m not sure I will ever completely recover – but the mild, but chronic form of depression from which I have suffered since my teens is now fully accepted, better understood, better managed, and better controlled.
Yes, to a greater or lesser degree, I still suffer every single day; but the difference is that I recognise the symptoms; I can spot the obvious triggers (but don’t waste time trying to find the less obvious … because they might not even exist); I know my coping strategies; I know there are people I can talk to … however compelling the need to withdraw; and most importantly of all, I am strong enough to retain the objective clarity to realise the feelings always pass.
My “challenges” are not intended to suggest any miracle cure – because there isn’t one. To whatever extent an individual improves or “recovers”, it is a hard fight; it can take a long time; and there will be setbacks along the way. But (with a capital B), the moment you talk to someone – be it a friend, parent, colleague, teacher, doctor etc. – you have taken the biggest and toughest step; and that makes you amazing…
What I am trying to do is show that whatever the condition from which you suffer (or believe you may suffer), and however it manifests itself in your daily life, you are not alone. Your life, your circumstances and specific symptoms may be unique, but so many people will be able to relate to you in terms of how much you struggle.
People will listen.
People will help.
For 2019, my “challenges” will revolve around the sport of netball. I am lucky enough to work with Grangetown Netball Club (fourth best club in the country I’ll have you know) as a volunteer reporter. They are lovely people, and great athletes, playing a fantastic sport; and half of this year’s work will involve arranging events in which members of the squad will participate (and planning is already underway…).
The second part of the challenge is to meet six stars of the game chosen by three people who randomly picked two numbers each, which were then matched against a list of names numbered 1-50 (in no particular order).
I’m very much aware that means asking six people I don’t know to get involved in something they know nothing about. Hopefully the mental theme will make a difference, and maybe the past challenges will prove I’m serious about what I doing; but whatever the outcome(s), I’m definitely going to have to ask for help.
As far as mental health is concerned, netball is essentially no different to any other sport, or any walk of life for that matter: mental health does not discriminate and anyone can be affected…
Today’s world is very different to the one in which I grew up; issues such as body image, eating disorders, obsessive conditions, forms of stress, anxiety and depression (and the numerous potential triggers) et al are now very much in the public domain; but that in itself doesn’t remove the pain of the sufferer, or the stigma that sadly still exists.
Many of the above have some relevance within the realms of netball, but of course, they are not restricted to age, or gender, let alone an individual sport. I have chosen to raise awareness through netball simply because I love watching the sport, and I love Grangetown … but the underlying messages wouldn’t be any different if the sport was cricket or rugby league…
Essentially if just one person reads these blogs, sees the photos of the challenges, and is somehow empowered to talk about how they are feeling; then that justifies everything.
All of which brings me to the photo at the top of the page. The young lady in question is Rachel Dunn. Rachel plays netball for Wasps and England and is one of the finest shooters currently playing the game.
Rachel had drawn one of the six short straws mentioned earlier, but with support from Wasps’ photographer Clive Jones and PR/Media manager Rob Milne (both of whom I had also never met before), it was possible to spend a few thoroughly enjoyable minutes in Rachel’s company on Sunday… and even have a photo to prove it…
So the 2019 netball challenges are officially underway. There will be more blogs and pictures to come over the next few months, but even though the photos will be different, the message will always stay the same.
It is fine to talk openly about mental health; and never be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling.
Along with Grangetown head coach Gel Williams and podcast legend Andy Lamb, I drove down to Coventry yesterday to watch the Wasps vs London Pulse Super League clash … officially the furthest I have ever travelled to watch a game of netball.
The tickets had been booked towards the back end of last year, well before I had the idea of attempting some netball-related “challenges” to raise mental health awareness; but the visit to the Midlands offered an unexpected, but welcome opportunity to start the proverbial ball rolling…
The journey was relatively uneventful and we arrived at the Ricoh Arena just after two o’clock. I’d paid for parking in advance, but it was a bit of a worry when the barrier worked using electronic registration number recognition – and my car hasn’t been washed since … well since the last heavy downpour. Thankfully, the letters and numbers were still decipherable through the layer of grime, and my faithful old Corsa trundled under the barrier and into an empty space.
From what I saw, the Ricoh Arena looks a magnificent complex – befitting the quality of sport being played particularly by the netball and rugby union sides. We peered into the arena and saw that the under-19 fixture between Wasps and Pulse was underway. Sadly the stewards would not let us in to watch, but Pulse claimed a notable scalp with a one-goal victory.
I thought I spotted a familiar face amongst the Pulse squad, and at the risk of being embarrassingly wrong, I went to say a quick hello. Thankfully, I had the right person, Funmi Fadoju; England under-17 captain, New Cambell Premier League defender and without doubt, one of the most talented athletes of her age I have ever seen.
Happy to report she is a charming young woman too, and as I wrote in my report after New Cambell’s win at Grangetown in January; remember the name, because Funmi is a star in the making.
After Andy departed to do his media stuff, Gel (armed with her free Mother’s Day Prosecco) and I found our seats and watched the two sides warm up. The whole set-up, both on and off the court, was so professional, and it was great to see so many families with young children coming along to cheer on their team.
With Grangetown (fourth best team in the country by the way) players Ash Neal and Brie Grierson in the London squad, Gel and I were two of a small number of Pulse supporters in the four-figure crowd; but whilst Brie started at wing attack, Ash (somewhat surprisingly) had to wait until the final quarter before being introduced.
For the opening few minutes, the teams appeared fairly evenly-match. Pulse even netted against a Wasps centre pass to take a 7-5 lead; however 11 of the next 12 goals were scored by the home side and, for me, the game was essentially over as a contest by the end of the first quarter.
Pulse battled away, but Wasps were simply the better side and drew further away over the next three periods to record a comfortable 67-35 success.
Bearing in mind, I’m no expert; here are a few thoughts on the game…
The majority of Pulse goals came from Chiara Semple at goal attack. Defensively, Wasps coped really well with the three players used at goal shooter; and it would have been interesting to see if or how the dynamic of the game might have been affected by moving Chiara to shooter, and bringing on Ash at goal attack alongside Brie, who did really well at wing attack.
As a totally biased aside, that combination would also have gone down very well with the Grangetown fans in the crowd!
Another player I have seen in Prem 1, Oldham’s Taylor Cullen, had a tough afternoon marking Bongi Msomi (who had a huge influence on the game and was deservedly named player of the match); but Taylor stuck to her task really well and I thought she had a pretty good game. I was also impressed by Fionnuala (Fi) Toner; a fine player who is as brave and tough as they come.
Wasps played some fantastic netball, but as I’ve just indicated Bongi Msomi was simply outstanding. Rarely have I seen such speed of movement –especially her changes of direction. Bongi was so clever at creating space for herself, and had great vision with her circle feeds; she also delivered the “no-look” pass seemingly at will, a clear sign of the understanding there is within the Wasps attacking unit. Simply a joy to watch.
Rachel Dunn and Jade Clarke were excellent in the circle and in mid-court respectively. Rachel had to show plenty of strength and skill in what was a great battle with Loreen Ngwira, but as soon as she had ball in hand, the goal was almost inevitable. Jade’s work-rate was phenomenal, but what Gel and I thought was fantastic was that she had the class to bring Bethany Dix straight into the game when the youngster came on for what I assume (judging by the loudest cheer of the day) was her Super League debut.
I also want to mention Tamsin Moala, a familiar name to anyone who follows north east netball. Tamsin enjoyed a fine spell at goal attack, and I just loved her shooting style. To my untrained eye, it looked like she gave the ball plenty of air, but time after time the ball dropped (seeming vertically) straight down into the net. I had the chance to meet Tamsin after the game … she reads my articles … forget what I said earlier; Tamsin you were my player of the match!
As far as “meetings” go, it was good to spend some time with photographer Clive Jones, and to meet Wasps PR and media manager Rob Milne. Both helped arrange for me to spend a few minutes in the company of Rachel Dunn – one of the six netballers selected at random for me to meet as part of my netball “challenges”.
On a day when the players’ mothers were in attendance and there was a throng of young fans wanting selfies with the Wasps stars, it was so kind of Rachel to spare a couple of minutes to talk to me and have a photo taken.
She was actually aware of the challenge, and I must say she was lovely; so thank you much Rachel, it was great to meet you.
As well as being able to catch up with Ash and Brie after the game, I also had the pleasure of chatting to England captain Ama Agbeze – she took a real interest in the work that I was doing, and spending some time in her company was a wonderful way to end the visit.
Eventually, we made our way back to the car park and started the long journey … to the exit.
We drew up alongside another car at the barriers, but just as my number plate somehow passed the recognition test for a second time, the adjacent barrier remained horizontal and the adjoining sign was illuminated by the words “Not Paid”. The driver clambered slowly from the vehicle to be greeted by cheers from three Middlesbrough-bound adults who frankly should know better…
And that’s just about it. Three hours later, I was at home having a first sip of a chilled Viognier (such sophistication…); but at the end of a thoroughly enjoyable day spent in great company, I have to finish with the same short, but massively important message that has flowed through so many blogs, articles and interviews over the past five years.
It is fine to talk openly about mental health; and however daunting it may seem, never be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling. You are not alone…